In the last four years, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has seen his public persona shift from President Donald Trump’s hand-picked vision of what a military leader should be into public enemy #1 for conservative lawmakers who blame him for eroding military culture and readiness.
Democratic lawmakers have praised his actions during and after the Capitol attack in January 2021 as pivotal to upholding democracy. Trump earlier this month blasted him as a “woke train wreck” and suggested Milley should be prosecuted for treason because of decisions made during his tenure.
The 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs leaves behind a complicated legacy that includes the end of the war in Afghanistan, public sparring with the commander-in-chief over the use of troops on U.S. soil, ongoing fights over “woke” policies in the military and unanswered questions on whether the armed forces have become forever politicized by the events of recent years.
This week, as Milley ends his four years as the nation’s top uniformed military leader, critics and supporters are offering their arguments for how his tenure should be remembered by history, and whether he should be lionized or vilified for the work. As it has been throughout his time in the post, those opinions vary wildly.
“I think he’ll be remembered as someone who rose to the challenge in difficult circumstances, and not just be remembered for those circumstances,” said retired Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, deputy director of the Institute for Security Policy and Law at Syracuse University. “I think in 50 years, people will view him as another one of the good leaders we’ve had there.”
Meanwhile, Trump supporter Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., called Milley a “traitor” who should be executed for refusing to back the former president in fights with Democrats. “Our nation deserves much better than this,” he wrote.
From model officer to Trump nemesis
Milley, who will officially step down as chairman and retire from the Army by Oct. 1, declined to be interviewed for this story. The 65-year-old Boston area native graduated from Princeton University in 1980, where he received his commission from Army ROTC. He went on to serve as the Army’s Chief of Staff after commanding troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Among other operational deployments, in early April 2005, then-Col. Milley led the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad, Iraq.
Retired Col. Ross Davidson, who served as Milley’s operation’s officer at the time, said in one instance, Milley ran across a bridge riddled with mines, stopping an oncoming group of tanks from rolling into a disaster. Davidson recommended Milley be awarded for the act, but Milley, though appreciative of the sentiment, said he didn’t want the recognition for simply doing his job.
Milley’s name gained national prominence in late 2018, when Trump went against the wishes of senior advisors to elevate Milley to the Joint Chiefs Chairman role. Despite concerns from lawmakers, he was easily confirmed by the Senate.
Milley was a key voice in Trump’s decision to launch a raid that ended in the death of Islamic State group founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2019, and was praised by the president for his guidance. The two still enjoyed a strong public relationship until the summer of 2020, when a photo-op caused an irrevocable split between the pair.
On June 1, 2020, amid racial justice protests across the country following the police killing of George Floyd, local authorities cleared demonstrators from the Lafayette Square area outside the White House for Trump and other officials to walk to a nearby church. Milley accompanied them in full uniform, a move that drew widespread criticism.
Milley later publicly apologized for the move, saying it gave the perception that military leaders were taking sides in debates over protests and racial justice. That angered Trump and his supporters, as did leaked reports that Milley was working behind the scenes to convince the president not to use military troops for domestic protest response efforts.
The divide between the men only grew after Trump lost the November 2020 election. In an interview with the Atlantic, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said that “Milley expected to be fired every single day between Election Day and Jan. 6.” Milley has said when rioters overtook the Capitol on the day Congress certified the election results, he spoke to numerous senior White House officials about providing a security response, but never heard from Trump.
He and other members of the Joint Chiefs penned a letter a few days later lamenting the attack by Trump supporters on “Congress, the Capitol building and our Constitutional process,” further enraging the president’s backers.
Since then, the men have engaged in a public back-and-forth over each other’s perceived wrongdoings. Milley has spoken to reporters about Trump’s unstable nature and unrealistic plans to use military force to solve a variety of problems. Trump has accused Milley of undermining his authority to burnish his own reputation.
That animosity has spread into Congress, where Republican House members have frequently berated Milley for a host of military problems, including pandemic response efforts, recruiting and retention challenges and interactions with foreign allies.
He has also been sharply criticized for the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, a decision made by President Joe Biden that he advised against. In testimony before the Senate a month after the pullout, Milley called the evacuation “a logistical success but a strategic failure” for the country.
But he also defended following Biden’s orders — and all of his other actions in office up to that point — as the right move for the military and America.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” he told members of the Senate during a September 2021 hearing. “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to this republic, and I am committed to ensuring the military stays clear of domestic politics.”
Defining his legacy
Murrett, who served on the Joint Staff during former President George W. Bush’s time in office, said he believes Milley has stuck to that commitment. He said every Joint Chiefs chairman in recent memory has received pushback from Congress for hewing too closely or not following close enough to their current administration, but that they have largely toed an apolitical line.
“Whoever is the chairman, they do their best to stay as politically neutral as they can,” he said. “And I think that’s reflected in what Milley has done.”
He thinks historians will focus in years to come on the idea of Milley rising above political fights when they look back at his tenure. Others see individual issues dominating the conversation.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, I think his legacy is going to be more about what happened in Afghanistan than anything else,” said Robert Greenway, Heritage Foundation’s director of the Center for National Defense.
He argued that what happened during the chaotic withdrawal in August 2021 seared a negative image in the public’s mind, and because of how Americans regarded what unfolded, they lost a level of trust in the armed forces.
Greenway also said senior military leadership, including Milley, are in large part responsible for the poor state of recruitment among the services, which have struggled lately to attract new talent. He posited that a prioritization on diversification efforts within the armed forces — policies publicly defended by Milley — have impacted the trust of potential new personnel.
Retired Col. Gian Gentile, a senior Army historian with the RAND Corporation think tank, focused on the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a defining issue of Milley’s legacy. While the major decisions on U.S. support to Ukraine come from policymakers, the Joint Chiefs chairman has played a significant part in American allyship.
Gentile described it as “a very positive and very strong level of support and cooperation with the Ukrainian military.”
For others, it’s clear Milley has been tested by an evolving civilian-military relationship, pushing the boundaries of the nonpartisan nature of his role.
Katherine Kuzminski, the director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, said that part of the challenge of Milley wading into a number of debates has been that both sides are pointing at him as a politicized figure.
Next man up
Milley’s replacement, Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, already faced some of the same political attacks during his confirmation process. He was approved by a vote of 83 to 11 earlier this month, after facing an extended wait due to objections from Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tubervile over opposition to the Defense Department’s abortion access policy.
During his confirmation hearing in July, Brown pledged to “stay nonpartisan, nonpolitical in how I approach the position of chairman” and “set that same expectation throughout the force that we need to stay out of politics.”
Murrett acknowledged that is easier said than done, given the political tensions surrounding the military right now. Even with Brown’s confirmation, more than 300 other senior military nominees are caught in Tuberville’s procedural objections, starting his tenure with immediate leadership headaches.
“But I think Milley has lived up to that very high standard of what is expected amid those difficult circumstances, and I’m very confident that CQ Brown is going to do the same thing,” Murrett said. “It’s their responsibility to serve the country well.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media